This article analyzes ways that legal and social understandings of kinship intersect for Taiwanese queer parents and prospective parents. Parents in this research experience varying degrees of legal and cultural intelligibility within the existing household registration system and the familial contexts in which they reside and carry out their daily lives. Many are rearing children in multigenerational, extended family households and are juggling a variety of gendered family roles and responsibilities that shape their parenting practices. Their experiences highlight the limits of rights discourses that treat marriage and parenthood as largely class- and gender-neutral institutions and presuppose a nuclear family model. Such uncritical approaches to marriage and parenthood leave the normative power of these systems intact even as they provisionally open to greater numbers of people. The article foregrounds pathways to parenthood and struggles for legal recognition among queers in a variety of family arrangements, including those that do not fit within the conventional representation of a cohabiting and marriage-desiring same-sex couple with children.
In autumn 2012, I took part in a sightseeing trip for lesbian and gay elders hosted by a subcommittee of the oldest and largest LGBTQ+ rights group in Taiwan.1 This was my third such trip in the span of sixteen months, comprising a part of my research on queer family of origin relationships, my volunteer work for the organization, and my friendships with several of the trip organizers. I sat beside two men in their sixties who introduced themselves as boyfriends of three years and held hands throughout the day like young sweethearts. In snippets of conversation between the raucous bouts of karaoke that filled our tour bus, we discovered that the three of us lived in the same neighborhood in New Taipei City. “Do you live together?” I asked, making small talk. “Oh, no!” the men chuckled. Like many of the older participants, they were heterosexually married with children and lived with their respective families, in homes that they told me were five minutes apart on foot. They spent time with one another's kids and got on well with them in the role of “dad's friend.”
At about this time, we pulled into a historic park, and I spotted one of my informants, Hong, getting off the second bus in our little caravan. He greeted me with his trademark exuberance, and I asked after his boyfriend, who lives abroad. Hong's sunny face darkened with concern. “My boyfriend's health is getting worse,” he said. “It's not possible for me to leave, so I'm hoping one of my kids will agree to go and live with him.” Hong is also in his sixties, and his three kids by marriage are now adults. “Would your kids agree to do this?” I asked. Hong brightened again. “I think my daughter might be able to accept it.”
These men are part of a population of gay fathers that is almost wholly absent from the literature on LGBTQ+ parenting. We know little about how gay men in a majority of the world enter and carry out fatherhood (Lubbe 2013; Tasker and Patterson 2007). Gay men who become fathers through heterosexual marriage are especially invisible. Lesbian motherhood is more widely studied, but this work also remains largely confined to North America and Western Europe. Researchers often (and sometimes intentionally) limit their samples to lesbians who become mothers in the context of a same-sex relationship. This is an important group to study. But we cannot assume that such women represent the broader population of lesbian mothers, a majority of whom conceive their children in the context of a heterosexual union (Brainer, Moore, and Banerjee 2019; Moore 2009).
During the last two decades, a theoretically rich body of work on queer lives and struggles for recognition in Asia has kept pace with gender and sexuality rights movements in the region.2 Evidencing the growth of this field, in 2008 Hong Kong University Press launched a Queer Asia book series centered on non-normative sexualities in Asian histories and cultures, and in 2020 Howard Chiang and James Welker partnered with the University of Michigan Press to launch a series on Global Queer Asias. At the same time, an extensive literature on lesbian and gay parenthood has had virtually no interpenetration with queer studies in Asia.3 As a result, many of the key themes and questions taken up in this literature—such as how LGBTQ+ people experience motherhood and fatherhood, outcomes for children raised by LGBTQ+ parents, and relationship dynamics in LGBTQ+-parent households—have not been explored in Asian contexts. Furthermore, many new themes and questions about LGBTQ+ parenthood do not have an opportunity to emerge when a large percentage of the world's families are omitted from this research.
This article approaches lesbian and gay parenthood from the standpoint of Taiwanese queer parents and prospective parents. I begin by acquainting readers with the socio-legal landscape and the conditions of legal precarity that my informants navigate as they create and care for their families. Efforts are underway to transform the law and how it is interpreted to privilege heterosexual parents, some coming to fruition even as I revise this article. At the same time, my findings highlight the limits of the law and legal reform to fully address the issues facing queer parents and their children. My findings are consistent with those of Friedman and Chen (this issue) showing that lesbian mothers are often doubtful or ambivalent about the efficacy of the law to protect their families. Gender and class inequities and extended family structures play a central role in my informants’ lives. These aspects of parenting constitute the focus of this article and, I argue, hold implications for the study of queer parenthood more broadly.
Who Is a Queer Parent? Definitions and Methods
Naming sexualities in even one language brings up numerous issues and tensions; naming sexualities across multiple languages poses a still greater challenge. In this article, I use LGBTQ+ and queer as imperfect signifiers for people who describe their non-normative sexualities and genders in a variety of ways. My choice to use these terms interchangeably is a deliberate one. While I appreciate arguments about the limits of LGBTQ+ as it circulates transnationally, I find queer to be just as partial and culturally loaded. I hope that interchanging LGBTQ+ and queer will signal to the reader that these are not fixed identities, but terms that are constantly reworked, hybridized, and at times problematized by those who use them. I include any queer informant who identified as a parent, irrespective of their legal or biological ties to the child.4
This analysis stems from a larger project on generational change and continuity in family of origin relationships. Over a period of sixteen months, I conducted eighty life-history interviews with queer and trans people from different generational cohorts, and with their straight, cisgender parents and siblings. I spent time with these families in their homes and in more structured settings such as support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ children and other queer-centered gatherings and events. In my book based on this research, I examine changing discourses of motherhood and fatherhood from the perspective of heterosexual parents of queer and transgender children. But through encounters such as those I described in the opening vignette, I also began to think about how these discourses matter for queers who are parents themselves. This article is the beginning of an effort to bring those stories to the foreground.
My queer informants ranged in age from their twenties to their seventies. Among those in their fifties and older, many were heterosexually married, while others were divorced, separated, or widowed, and a majority had children. A small number of people, like Hong, fostered kin-like bonds between their same-sex partners and their children, while many others integrated their partners as family friends. Parenthood was less common among younger queers in my research, due in part to lower rates of heterosexual marriage. In Taiwan, as in many parts of East Asia, growing numbers of people are delaying marriage or opting not to marry, without a commensurate increase in premarital or extramarital births. Today less than than 5 percent of births in Taiwan occur outside of marriage (Ji 2015; Tai, Yi, and Liu 2019). As is evident from this statistic, most Taiwanese parents have their children in the context of a heterosexual marriage, and this is true for LGBTQ+ parents as well.
Importantly, the kinship structures I describe in this article are those practiced by Taiwan's Han majority. All of the parents I interviewed identify either as benshengren 本省人 (descendants of Chinese settlers who migrated to Taiwan before 1949) or waishengren 外省人 (descendants of Chinese settlers who migrated to Taiwan after 1949/with the KMT regime). Missing from this analysis are the perspectives of parents and families who are a part of Taiwan's indigenous groups, making up around 2 percent of the population, and having a distinct and much longer history on the island. In the introduction to this special issue, Kim and Friedman highlight the lingering influences of colonialism on various legal and administrative systems governing family life. In Taiwan, these colonial legacies involve not only Japanese but also Chinese settler colonialism, and erasure and appropriation of indigenous cultures have been a part of diverse nation-building projects (Sugimoto 2017). My data are limited in this regard, and further work is needed to explore how queer sexuality and indigeneity intersect within Taiwanese family law and practice.
Status of Queer Parents and Prospective Parents in Taiwan
The social and legal environment is changing rapidly for Taiwanese queers. Even as I write this article, portions of it are becoming social history (a fact I address more fully below). Activists are working to create change across many levels of society, including, but not limited to, public education, political visibility, legal rights and reforms, and more radical cultural change (see Lee 2017 for an analysis of Taiwan's sex rights movement and the interplay of assimilationist and liberationist currents within it). Taiwan is often lauded as a uniquely “gay-friendly” destination, having made more strides toward inclusivity than many other countries (e.g., Leach 2012). But designations like this one hide a more complicated reality. Struggles for queer, transgender, and intersex self-determination are ongoing, and victories are hard won; legal provisions have not eradicated the discrimination and social exclusion that queer people endure in their daily lives (Chen and Wang 2010; Lee 2016; Wu, Wu, and Ye 2014). Parents and prospective parents are among those who feel this exclusion keenly.
When I collected these data, a formalized legal pathway to parenthood did not exist for Taiwanese queers outside the institution of heterosexual marriage. Two people of the same sex could not share legal parentage of a child (Lin 2013). Legalization of same-sex marriage in May 2019 opened the door to co-adoption with important limits. Under this new law, a married same-sex couple may obtain joint parental rights only if the child is biologically related to one of the spouses (A. Huang 2019). Single people can adopt, and some lesbians and gays become parents this way. However, this leaves co-parents and their children in an extremely vulnerable position as legal strangers. For example, if a same-sex couple raises an adopted child together and the custodial parent dies, the child will be orphaned in the eyes of the state and will likely be removed from the care of their surviving parent. Same-sex co-adoption has been at the heart of a number of legal cases, and the courts have consistently ruled against queer parents (Tien and Huang 2014, referring here to cases decided prior to May 2019; whether and how legal marriage will change this landscape remain open questions).
Yun-Hsien Lin (2013) examines a case in which a lesbian couple, Lin and Wu, petitioned the Taoyuan District Court for Lin to adopt her sister's daughter. Lin's sister and her husband did not have the financial resources to provide for the child, and the extended family agreed to support the adoption. The Taiwan Fund for Children and Families evaluated the case and found that Lin met all the requirements for adoption, but expressed concern about Lin's masculine gender presentation and the stigma attached to lesbianism. As a result, the court ruled against the adoption. The child's birth mother, along with the rest of the Lin family, chose to support Lin and Wu in informally adopting and raising this child, without recognition or protection under the law. In a kind of circular logic, the court attributed its discriminatory ruling to the existence of discrimination, noting that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality itself, but that a child raised by lesbians may be harmed by the unequal treatment her family will likely receive. In this case, the court itself perpetrated the harm it sought to mitigate by denying the child a legal bond with her parents.
In another case publicized in local and international media, Wang Shuyi 王淑儀 petitioned to adopt her twin daughter and son, whom she planned for and co-parented with her partner of fifteen years, Chou Shuqi 周書綺.5 Taiwanese law stipulates that the partner of a birth mother may adopt their child only if the couple is legally married. Chou and Wang applied as a de facto married couple. In February 2015, the court ruled against Wang, citing a potentially negative impact on the children's development. Like the ruling against Lin, this decision exposed a deep bias embedded in the legal system. Discrimination against queer parents, even when it is not legally encoded, enters through the court's subjective determination, often couched in the language of the “best interests of the child.”
The best interests doctrine entered the Taiwan Civil Code in 1996. Prior to this, the court automatically granted child custody to the father in a divorce. The 1996 amendment stipulates that custody disputes should be determined not by the gender of the parent but by the best interests of the child. In this regard, the doctrine represents a step toward gender equity. However, conditions considered by the court include many subjective measures that allow for anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, such as “the lifestyle of the parents” (Taiwan Civil Code article 1055–1).6 As a result, queer parents are more vulnerable to losing custody of their children in a divorce. Since 2007, these same terms and corresponding obstacles have applied to adoption cases as well. Access to marriage will surely offer much-needed protection to many couples and to the children they raise together. At the same time, overcoming systemic bias and discrimination is a long game and one that activists will continue to struggle with in the years to come.
Taiwan's Artificial Reproduction Act stipulates that only infertile husbands and wives may access assisted reproductive technology (ART) (Hsu and Lu 2018; Wu 2011: 99–100). Same-sex couples who wish to form families through ART must either leave the country or find ways to get around these laws. Some lesbians opt for self-insemination, often with sperm from a trusted male friend since they cannot legally access sperm banks (Lin 2013: 18–19). However, this raises issues of custody and, once again, leaves the non-gestational mother out of the legal loop. In an alternative arrangement, some people enter contractual lesbian-gay marriages (lesbian women married to gay men) and conceive through technology that becomes legally available to them once they are recognized as a married heterosexual couple (a situation I describe later in this article). These arrangements raise complex issues of custody, paternity, and trust between the married couple and their respective partners.7
Pathways to parenthood reflect and reproduce inequities not only between heterosexually married and unmarried people but also among queers from different class backgrounds and with varying degrees of family support. Affluent queers, and those supported financially and in other ways by their families, are more likely to have the means to circumvent the obstacles—for example, going abroad to obtain sperm and become pregnant—while queers of modest economic means have fewer options at their disposal. Ultimately, even the most privileged same-sex couple cannot share parentage of a nonbiological child in the eyes of the state.
In May 2017, Taiwan's Constitutional Court ruled that the existing marriage laws are unconstitutional and violate the rights of same-sex couples. The court gave parliament two years to amend the existing laws or pass new ones (Hsu and Yen 2017). Same-sex marriage became legal in Taiwan in May 2019. This decision and the subsequent law followed a long and arduous struggle by LGBTQ+ advocates and their opponents. Parenthood figured prominently in the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. For example, in a public hearing on same-sex marriage and adoption, opponents argued that lesbians and gays are unfit parents because they cannot form stable relationships with their families and significant others, and that this has a negative impact on children's health (Wang, Wu, and Shih 2016). Others argued that same-sex marriage weakens population policy rooted in hetero-marital procreation.8
Parenthood played a significant role in marriage equality campaigns as well. In a promotional video released in 2016, a heterosexual father tells the story of his personal journey to embrace his lesbian daughter's family, including her partner and their child, his granddaughter.9 The video juxtaposes familial integration and warmth against the continued social and legal marginalization of lesbian mothers. A 2016 BBC profile tells the story of Cindy and Lana, a Taiwanese lesbian couple who conceived twins using donor insemination. Lana shares about her legal vulnerability and fears as a noncustodial parent whose relationship to her own children is not recognized under the law.10
Legalization of same-sex marriage is a critical step for some queer parents, including the lesbian mothers represented in these campaigns. The right to adopt, access reproductive technologies, take maternity and paternity leave, and obtain financial assistance from the state are among the numerous rights and protections at stake. The extent to which the new law can and will provide these protections is not yet clear. At this historical moment, Friedman and Chen (this issue) find that lesbian parents in Taiwan are cautious about planning for the future, aware that the legal landscape may shift very quickly and not always in their favor. Furthermore, legal marriage does not resolve many other forms of discrimination levied against queer parents. For example, there are still unequal standards with regard to the legal presumption of parentage under the Artificial Reproduction Act. Heterosexuals who use ART do not have to legally adopt their own children, as is required of same-sex non-gestational parents.11 In addition, and crucially for my informants, legal marriage does not address the social and familial basis of queer marginalization and the barriers that queer parents face as a result.
Heterosexual Marriage and Extended Family Structures
Parenthood is a gendered institution anchored in an extended system of kin roles and relations. In a system where family membership is secured through the male line, a woman becomes a member of her husband's household; her children carry on his family name and venerate his ancestors. As a daughter-in-law, she is responsible for taking care of her children, her husband, and her husband's parents. Queer mothers in my research often struggled to balance these responsibilities with their desires for intimacy and autonomy. Hetero-marital relationships, including relationships with their husbands, parents-in-law, and other relatives, shaped their mothering strategies and daily lives.
Not long after the sightseeing trip and my chats with the gay fathers introduced on the opening page, I attended a panel discussion on the topic of yixinglian hunyin yu nu tongzhi 異性戀婚姻與女同志 (lesbian desires within heterosexual marriage). All of the women on the panel were mothers. They spoke candidly about their experiences and what they wished for themselves and their children. One mother, Jiayi, was trying to decide whether to leave or remain in her marriage to the children's father. However, she did not connect this decision to her lesbian identity. Instead, she weighed the value of childcare assistance provided by her in-laws against the damaging gender messages her daughters receive at home. Like many married women in Taiwan, Jiayi lives with her husband's parents and is expected to defer to her in-laws in family decision-making. Reflecting on this, Jiayi said, “I never imagined that I would be in a traditional family arrangement, taking on the role of a daughter-in-law.” She described this role as burdensome and at odds with her own feminist sensibilities as a parent. For example, after every meal, invariably prepared by the women of the family, her father-in-law will get up and walk away, leaving his plate and all of the cleanup to the women. Jiayi does not want her daughters to normalize this kind of behavior. Identifying as a lesbian, for Jiayi, is not an impetus for divorce. But the gender norms and values modeled for her daughters have prompted her to consider this potentially costly path.
Listening to Jiayi and the other mothers on this panel, my mind drifted to my informants Lu and Betty, co-mothers of three children conceived through Betty's marriage to a gay man. Betty, like Jiayi, lives with her husband's parents and struggles to protect her autonomy as a lesbian woman in these close quarters. The predicament has worsened since Betty's husband Henry “outed” them to the family, increasing her in-laws’ surveillance of their relationship. While Henry is able to keep sex and romance separate from his family life, Betty does not have the luxury of personal time and space to nurture her fifteen-year relationship with Lu (a love that predated her marriage by several years).
Being “outed” also complicated Lu's relationship with the children, whom she helped to plan for and raise. Her eyes sparkled with pride and affection as she showed me photos of the kids on her mobile phone. She describes herself as their second mother and hopes that they will remain a family after the kids are grown. But the legal marriage and paternity take precedence in all matters. In one especially volatile conversation, Henry told Lu that she had no right to be involved in important decisions about the children. His statement made Lu keenly and painfully aware of her social and legal precarity. For all of her labor and devotion, she has no claim on the children or legal right to parent them; she is entirely dependent on the good will of Betty's husband and marital family.
There are many queer parents like Hong, Jiayi, Betty, Henry, and the couple I met on the bus, rearing their children in the context of a heterosexual marriage and often a multigenerational household. These parents must find ways to integrate their queer relationships, values, and selves with familial expectations and gendered roles. The extended family is often involved in child-rearing, and this becomes an area of concern for many. There are also queer parents like Lu, whose stories rarely if ever appear in reports, studies, or conversations about LGBTQ+ parenting. These are parents whose ties to their children are neither biological nor legal. They are among the most vulnerable and also the most invisible in terms of parental rights and resources.
Beyond the Right to Marry
One might argue that family arrangements like Lu's, and vulnerabilities like those I have described, will decrease in number as queers secure access to legal marriage and parenthood. There is surely some truth to this—eventually queer people will have more options for anchoring their families in existing social institutions. However, Lu and Betty did not describe Betty's marriage to Henry as motivated by the absence of such options, but by her filial values and love and respect for her parents—and this was true of all my married queer informants.
In the patrilineal family context, same-sex marriage raises new issues and questions. What of two women who form a household? To which family lineage do their children belong? The absence of a patriline will require a fundamental restructuring of kinship and family obligations. Gay men face a related set of questions, connected, for them, to the loss of family privilege and power. As one gay man explained to me, “If I marry a man, which one of us should leave his family and join the other? And who will take care of my children and parents? Another man will have obligations to his own parents.”
Researchers in other East Asian contexts have reported similar findings. For example, Wei Wei quotes an interview with a gay man in Chengdu, China, who willingly got married because marriage provides “something you cannot find in your relationships with men . . . The mutual care and support of each other, or the will to sacrifice for the partner . . . You are more likely to find these qualities in heterosexual relationships” (Wei 2007: 579). While this man perceives care, support, and sacrifice as mutual, research consistently shows that it is women who do the majority of the care work, take on supportive roles, and make sacrifices within marriage, and that this is still the case in contemporary China (Shu, Zhu, and Zhang 2012) and Taiwan (Kuo 2014). The persistence of patriarchal ideals, combined with a lack of legal and social support systems, institutionalize “sacrifice” for heterosexual wives; given such, it is not surprising that Wei's informant felt he could not find these qualities in a male partner.
Gender and family inequalities structure the relationships not only between husband and wife but also among extended kin. Despite changes in the law to improve the standing of women within families, advantages for men persist along many different axes of family life, such as inheritance, asset transfers, property ownership, and family decision-making (Chu and Yu 2010; Yu and Liu 2014). Women who raise children apart from men, either as single mothers or in lesbian partnerships, have an increased risk of poverty and housing insecurity (Chen 2006). These are issues of inequality that legal same-sex marriage does not resolve.
Through this lens, queer parenthood challenges much more than heterosexuality. It challenges patrilineal reproduction and the intergenerational transmission of male power and privilege. Marriage equality discourses, including those generated in the United States and promoted globally, often do not address power or patriarchy, focusing instead on individual choices. As a result, these discourses fail to address some of the most pressing issues facing queer parents in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Queer Single Parents
I am a father acting in a mother's position. In a traditional mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, there are differences of opinion about how to raise and discipline grandchildren or children. They are grandchildren to her and children to me. So this created many conflicts. For a period of time, I had very strong resistance against my mother. I felt, I am the father of the children, and you should respect me.– Bing, single gay father
I rose early in the morning to have breakfast with Bing, a time we chose to accommodate his busy schedule as a single father of three. His sister was watching the children and helping to get them off to school. Bing had always wanted children and realized this goal by entering a transactional marriage with a woman from mainland China. The couple never lived together and conceived through intrauterine insemination. Bing is the only gay man I spoke with who entered fatherhood “outside” marriage. Although he did technically get married, he did not even tell his family about the marriage until much later, and then only because the police came to his parents’ home to see if his migrant wife lived at the registered address (she did not). Recounting this event, Bing described his mother's shock and his own deep emotions as he rushed home and implored his parents’ forgiveness. At the time, I followed this narrative as if caught up in the currents of a river. It was not until much later, as I was transcribing the interview, that I found myself wondering what happened to his wife when the police failed to find her at the registered address. The legal and social marginalization of marriage migrants becomes entangled here with narratives of contemporary gay fatherhood, opening up another site from which to analyze the shifting norms around gender and family formation.12
Changes and continuities in gender norms also arise through Bing's role conflict in fulfilling some of the tasks of a “traditional daughter-in-law” (negotiating with his mother about child-rearing and discipline) while simultaneously occupying the position of a son and father (a position that, in his mind, entitles him to respect). Bing is not alone in finding himself without a clear script for intergenerational relations, ordinarily predicated on a heteronormative and patriarchal family model. One aspect of male privilege within this model is the access and entitlement to women's labor. Most gay men in my research did not give this up completely but continued to rely on female relatives, including for childcare support. At the same time, fathers who were not married or who were transactionally married like Bing did at least some of the work that straight men typically allocate to women.13
Queer single mothers also face penalties as they provide and care for their children, often without the social and familial support that men enjoy. These mothers are less likely to own a home, more likely to move frequently and to report periods of economic hardship, and more burdened by social stigma (Brainer 2019; Chen 2006; Yang 2008). In many regards, the difficulties these mothers articulate are similar to those of heterosexual women who raise children out of wedlock or after divorce. But queer mothers cope with added obstacles, including discrimination at work and in family life and legal barriers to merging families with a new partner in the future. Queer divorcées may be characterized as unfit mothers and risk losing custody of their children if their same-sex relationships are discovered and not supported. Non-gestational mothers who separate from their women partners may lose all ties to their children (consider what would happen, for example, if Lu and Betty were to break up). Gestational mothers exiting a same-sex relationship have no recourse for child support or other benefits in a welfare system designed around heterosexual marriage. The compounded challenges of gender- and sexuality-based discrimination place queer single mothers in an especially precarious position.
Organizations working to improve the status of women in society and to dismantle patriarchal family systems often choose to focus on heterosexual, cisgender women exclusively. As a result, queer women may find themselves marginalized even within those organizations that ostensibly represent their interests as single mothers. Recognizing this gap in service and advocacy, groups devoted to queer families have taken up the interlocking struggles around class, gender, sexuality, and parenthood described in this article. Taiwan Tongzhi Jiating Quanyi Cujin Hui 台灣同志家庭權益促進會 (LGBT Family Rights Advocacy, www.lgbtfamily.org.tw/index.php), originally the Alliance of Lesbian Mothers, formally registered as a civil association in 2011. Today it operates with an expanded vision of reproductive and sexual justice for diverse queer families. Taiwan Banlu Quanyi Tuidong Lianmeng 台灣伴侶權益推動聯盟 (Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, tapcpr.org/), Taiwan Tongzhi Zixun Rexian Xiehui 台灣同志諮詢熱線協會 (Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, hotline.org.tw/), and the cross-strait Huaren LaLa Lianmeng 華人拉拉聯盟 (Chinese LaLa Alliance, www.facebook.com/ChineseLalaAlliance) are among other groups working to advance visibility, quality of life, and rights claims of queer parents.
Gender, Class, and Dreams
Shortly before I left the field, my then-flatmates, a T 踢 (transmasculine person, butch) in her mid-twenties and a po 婆 (femme) in her early thirties, produced a short film titled Wo de Huaiyun Meng 我的懷孕夢 (My Pregnant Dream), which debuted at the Women Make Waves film festival in Taipei. The film depicts the T's imagined pregnancy and the couple having a series of conversations about what kind of parents they hope to be. In one scene, the T wanders into a maternity store to search for clothing suitable for pregnancy yet consistent with her masculine gender. She and her girlfriend chuckle as they hold one feminine frilly piece after another against her flat chest (like most Ts, she is wearing a chest binder) and round belly. At last the po says, “It's ok, we can just buy large men's clothes. What matters is that they're comfortable.”
My Pregnant Dream explores ways that young lesbians in Taiwan imagine becoming parents and the sorts of issues they are likely to face along the way. The film aims to promote awareness about the lack of protection and rights for queer people who wish to form families. But it also brings up more nuanced issues, such as how the gender dynamics among T-po couples might shape pregnancy and child-rearing strategies. While the significance of gender differentiation among lesbians has been a major theme in research on lesbian life throughout Asia (see, for example, Blackwood 2010; Hu 2011, 2019; Leung 2002; Sinnott 2004, 2012; Sugiura 2007; Wieringa, Blackwood, and Bhaiya 2007), implications of lesbian masculinities and femininities for parenting have yet to be examined. One recent exception is in this special issue, where Friedman and Chen discuss the impact of masculine and feminine genders on lesbian couples’ decisions about pregnancy. Similar to My Pregnant Dream, their interviews point to gender dynamics among lesbian-parent families in Taiwan as an important area for researchers to explore.
Class disparities also structure the ways that young Taiwanese queers imagine and pursue parenthood. While doing interviews in southern Taiwan, I joined two dozen lesbians and five gay men for a workshop cheekily titled “How to Make a Baby.” Right away it became clear that the talk targeted lesbian prospective parents with substantial economic means. The price tag put on making a baby was upward of US$70,000, including the costs of temporary relocation to the United States and insemination and delivery in a US hospital. I sat next to a T-po couple who had been together for ten years and dreamed of having a child. The po told me that she was anxious to conceive because she had just turned thirty-two, and she considered age thirty-three to be the last acceptable year for a healthy pregnancy. However, living abroad temporarily was not an option for this working-class couple.
Behind us, a mild-mannered young gay man also struggled to square the workshop with his personal circumstances. At one point, he bashfully raised the prospect of finding a lesbian to carry the child. The queer woman host did not entertain this question, noting that such an arrangement is tai fuza 太複雜 (too complicated) and calling on someone else. Months later, this same young man told me that he had decided fatherhood was not suitable for his personality. It is impossible to say whether deeming himself bu shihe 不適合 (unsuitable) had anything to do with lack of access. His initial, timid efforts to find a lesbian helpmate were prompted in part by his parents; he may have felt disappointed or very relieved (or both) that no one agreed. But there are certainly some gay men who long to parent and, like this informant, never find a way to do so.
In a survey conducted by the Taipei Association for the Promotion of Women's Rights, more than 60 percent of the 1,523 lesbians who participated said that they would like to have a child.14 Ethnographic and qualitative data show people going to great lengths to become parents: entering and remaining in heterosexual marriages, including contractual marriages between lesbians and gay men; raising their children as single parents; bringing legal suits to gain access to adoption and assisted reproductive technologies; saving up money to travel abroad to conceive; and parenting the children of relatives. Some, like my flatmates, dream of creating two-parent lesbian or gay families, while others look for ways to merge (or compartmentalize) different kinds of family bonds—those with their children, lovers, spouses, in-laws, and other relatives.
As long as co-adoption and assisted reproductive technologies remain legally and/or financially out of reach, having a child in the context of a same-sex relationship will be highly stratified. More privileged couples—those with the resources to study or live abroad and to afford expensive procedures—can pursue pathways to parenthood that are not available to the majority of Taiwanese queers. At the same time, no amount of privilege can fully shield Taiwanese queer parents from legal and social precarity and from the gendered family pressures that surround parent-child and extended kin relations.
Queer family formation is a more diverse, more complicated, and often more disruptive act than simply changing the sex of one's spouse, leaving other dimensions of kinship and family intact. As I have shown, it is not only the relationship between husband and wife but also relationships with parents, in-laws, and other kin, and questions of lineage and hierarchy that arise for queers who are parenting or hope to become parents. Such questions arise throughout this special issue. Linda White, for example, writes about Japanese women who create families with men but refuse to legally register their marriages in order to resist the patrilineal koseki (household registration) system. That some women resist marriage and others demand the right to marry within patrilineal and marriage-centric societies points to the complexity of these choices for individual women seeking to secure rights for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, marriage equality campaigns have largely represented marriage as a class- and gender-neutral institution. This is particularly true of the marriage equality movement in the United States, which has heavily influenced discourse about same-sex marriage in Taiwan and globally.15 Lacking here is a critical evaluation of marriage, motherhood, and fatherhood as fundamentally classed and gendered institutions, which organize labor and resources within families. Such an uncritical view of marriage and parenting leaves the normative power of these systems intact even as we open them to greater numbers of people.
In Taiwan today, as in much of the world, a majority of queer parents are raising children from a prior or ongoing heterosexual marriage. Common approaches to the study of lesbian and gay parenthood, particularly those that compare queer parents to their heterosexual counterparts, overlook such families entirely. Limitations arise when we treat heterosexuality as a demographic variable—one is or is not a heterosexual parent—when in fact many people are both queer/in a same-sex relationship and structurally located in a heterosexual family. To better serve parents like these, we might analyze heterosexuality not as a personal characteristic but as an institution that organizes parenting in ways that intersect with and shape queer parenting practices. I have pointed to a small number of the many ways that this occurs, including stratification by gender and class, and issues arising within multigenerational and extended family contexts.
This article raises as many questions as it seeks to answer. How will the next generation of Taiwanese queer parents navigate class, gender, and extended family structures? To what extent will single parenthood and same-sex co-parenthood become more viable options legally and socially? Is it possible to challenge heteronormativity and patrilineality from within the institution of marriage, or is a more radical strategy required? I hope this exploratory work will join with and support others who are traversing this new area through research, legal measures, and activism as well as in their everyday lives.
This study is funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.
Taiwan Tongzhi Zixun Rexian Xiehui 台灣同志咨詢熱線協會 (Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association) has many active subcommittees focused on different aspects of queer life, education, and advocacy. Laonian Tongzhi Xiaozu 老年同志小組 (LGBT Elders Working Group) provides support to queer seniors and promotes awareness about issues of gender, sexuality, and aging through various activities. These include, but are not limited to, the collection and preservation of lesbian and gay oral histories, lectures and workshops on relevant topics, visitation of hospitalized or homebound seniors, and community events such as the caihong shunian bashi 彩虹熟年巴士 (rainbow bus) sightseeing trip described in this article.
This body of work includes numerous monographs (e.g., Bao 2018; Chalmers 2004; Chou 2000; Engebretsen 2013; H. Huang 2011; Kam 2012; Kong 2011; Lai 2021; Leung 2002; Martin 2003; McLelland 2000, 2005; Sang 2003; Suganuma 2012; Tang 2011; Wei 2020) as well as edited volumes on many dimensions of queer life and culture (e.g., Berry, Martin, and Yue 2003; Chiang 2012, 2017; Goh, Bong, and Kananatu 2020; Henry 2020; Khor and Kamano 2006; Martin et al. 2008; Sullivan and Leong 1995; Wieringa, Blackwood, and Bhaiya 2007; Yau 2010).
For reviews of the literature on queer parenthood over a twenty-year period, see Biblarz and Savci 2010; Biblarz and Stacey 2010; Goldberg and Allen 2020; Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi 2014; and Moore and Stambolis-Ruhstorfer 2013.
Most were biological mothers or fathers; a small number cared for the biological children of their intimate partners. I did not interview adoptive parents or people who were actively parenting the children of relatives, although I heard stories of such families from my informants.
See, for example, Apple Daily, “Shiliu nian banlu bu neng shouyang ta xiaohai” 16年伴侶不能收養她小孩 (“Partner of Sixteen Years Can't Adopt Her Children”), tw.nextmgz.com/realtimenews/news/44362639, published on October 1, 2016; and Taipei Times, “Lesbian to Fight Ruling on Parenting,” www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2015/03/15/2003613602, published on March 15, 2015.
Available at law.moj.gov.tw/LawClass/LawAll.aspx?PCode=B0000001 (Chinese) and law.moj.gov.tw/Eng/LawClass/LawAll.aspx?PCode=B0000001 (English).
The full hearing was livestreamed and is available at ivod.ly.gov.tw/Play/Full/8116/300.
See A ba de xin nei hua 阿爸的心內話 (A Father's Heart), directed by Pingwen Wang 王品文, youtu.be/FC_F0UKu1kQ, released on December 2, 2016.
See BBC News, “Taiwan's Push to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage,” youtu.be/qWmmrNPO5q0, published on December 12, 2016.
Victoria Hsiu-Wen Hsu, lawyer and president of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, discusses this issue in a Radio Taiwan International interview, english.rti.org.tw/news/?recordId=65156, broadcast on February 26, 2017.
Researchers in the United States have found that heterosexually married men are unique in the low levels of nurturing and caregiving that they do. In households without women, whether with a single father or two fathers, men are much more likely to engage in the nurturing tasks commonly associated with motherhood (Biblarz and Stacey 2010). In Taiwan, the context of single fatherhood differs in some meaningful ways, including the higher percentage of multigenerational households and grandparent care (Chen 2016). It is important to explore the experiences of Taiwanese gay fathers more thoroughly. This will deepen our understanding of the question Biblarz and Stacey pose: How does the gender of parents matter?
See Taibei Shi Nuxing Quanyi Cujin Hui 台北市女性權益促進會 (Taipei Association for the Promotion of Women's Rights), “Nu tongzhi jiankang xingwei diaocha baogao” 女同志 健康行為調查報告 (“Report on the Lesbian Health Behavior Survey”), www.tapwr.org.tw/research_artical.asp?artid=77&artcatid=4&artcat2id=10&nouse=3012 (accessed September 20, 2013).